The Delightful Laws of Skiing in Indiana (Psalm 1)

ski-area-999212_1920

“…but in the law of the Lord is his delight.”

(Psalms 1:2)

My parents taught me to ski when I was nine years old. This took place in Indiana. That is not a typo.

Skiing in Indiana is a unique experience. While it is still possible to seriously injure oneself (trees grow in Indiana as well as in Maine) it is also entirely possible to feign mastery with very little true capability. Skiing-as far as this havoc-wrecking, little Hoosier was concerned- required little other than pointing my skis downhill and possessing enough body mass for gravity to do its work. Beyond that, little control or turning was required.

I’ve been thinking for some time about the phrase in the first Psalm: “delight in the law of the Lord.” What a strange notion; have I ever delighted in any law?

The poem seems so polarized that the metaphors alienate me; I don’t walk in the way of the wicked (I’m not a Dallas Cowboys fan) and I don’t sit- at least intentionally- in the ‘seat of mockers’ (I will never partake in a presidential debate). But am I part of those who ‘flourish’ like trees by the river? I don’t think I meditate on the law of the Lord, certainly not day and night.

And all this creates a tension: the Christian life is supposed to be ‘free’ (the truth will set you free John 8:32). But then Paul goes and calls us slaves to Christ (you are now a slave of Christ 1 Corinthians 7:22). How can both of these be true?

When I was six years old, I taught my brother to play football. He was four and liked to cheat. Specifically, he enjoyed snapping the ball, turning and sprinting to his own end zone. “Touchdown!” he’d yell. To which I would protest: “It’s only fun if you play by the rules!” He disagreed. Provoking one’s older brother is a blast.

Which brings me back to skiing. Despite many days spent barreling down hills in Indiana, I have become a halfway decent skier. Enough to know, at least, that there are few feelings, few euphoric experiences, that can even begin to compare with a beautifully-executed parallel turn in fresh powder. Knowing what I know now, I’ve no desire resort to my original means of navigating a slope (namely hands on knees and screams of “MAYDAY!”).

The law of gravity and the law of friction dictate the laws of skiing: when I point my skis downhill, I will go; when I turn my skis perpendicular to the hill, I will stop. Apart from these rules, apart from this law, there is just mad, tumbling chaos.

The Christian faith- faith based on an eschatological hope in the life, work, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ- is hinged on belief into which Christians step freely. Sure, we can break the rules and go our own way. But bombastic plummets are a death wish on any slope higher than a Midwestern trash mound. (To be fair, the place where I learned to ski was natural. I think.) And it’s really not that fun. Pointing the skis straight downhill and holding on for dear life is actually gets a little boring.

This makes me think of C.S. Lewis: “No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is in the rein. They all go bad when they set up their own…”

I must remain within the framework of faith- the parameters of Christian hope- if I am to experience the resurrection of Christ as a daily, tangible reality. I can be creative; I can take it faster or slower; every skier has personal preferences and techniques. Theology, after all, is highly nuanced. But there are basic principles that must be followed in order for the thing I’m doing to classify as ‘skiing.’

The words of another commentator ring true in my mind: “Life is lived in futility if its fundamental purpose is never discovered.” It is hard to comprehend, but life is better with confines, with what Hebrew poets would have known as “the law.”

Faith requires submission but allows for true freedom. It opens us to the freedom of the mountains (or…hills), the freedom of fearlessness, of life lived within the knowledge that death has been conquered and all is being redeemed.

Following the law makes something that would otherwise be impossible, possible. It makes skiing possible. It makes teaching your four-year-old brother how to play football (so you can beat him at it) possible. It’s what makes Christianity so life-changing, so liberating.

Of course, this analogy is flawed and the correlation breaks down on multiple levels. But being a skier provides me the belief that there are some laws in which I might delight, that the very idea is even possible.

Even, I dare say, in Indiana.

Lights On Your Napkin

Night-Skiing

Here’s the thing: I don’t get poetry. There’s stacks of The New Yorker sitting next to me- all dog-eared on pages with shaped columns of words. I quote T.S. Eliot almost as much as the Bible. I even write poetry, the kind I wish to be published in one of those crummy literary magazines which- at best- makes for suitable toilet paper. Despite all this, I just don’t get it.

Even as I type this, I watch my fingers with some sort of wonder, like an infant who just discovered her toes. I believe this is because poetry- good poetry- is something transcendent. It touches a part of us that we, otherwise, might not know exists.

I went for a walk tonight. It’s cold and everything is covered in crisp, sharp darkness. But from where I stand my eyes follow the road as it clings to a hillside, pulling itself to the top, like seals onto land. And the road is lined with street lights. And the night is so dark but the lights so bright that I see them as floating, floating in the void.

As he was walking among the crowds, one voice rose above the others and captured Jesus’ attention. My son, the man said. Please, my son!

And Jesus told him that anything is possible for those who believe.

And in response, the father said five words:

I believe. Help my unbelief.

There’s a slope in the foothills of Indiana where I learned to ski. To those in the area it was a ski resort. But anyone who lived in a locale where you can’t get a view by standing atop the recycling bin would regard it as an oversized mogul. That said, it was steep enough to allow me the opportunity cut some turns before flying due south with all the eloquence of a bowling ball down stadium steps. It was one of the highlights of my childhood, really.

We used to ski a few days each year- my family that is. And at day’s end we’d leave just as the sun had finished setting. By then the lights would be turned on; night skiing began. And as the hill receded in the rearview mirror, the car was warm, my legs were tired, and I could see the lights floating like globes above the trees. If I looked close enough, I could see the chairlifts themselves inching up the slope, pulling souls heavenward.

Ernest Hemingway, while eating at a hotel in Manhattan, wagered his companions ten dollars apiece that he could write a novel in just six words. They agreed. So he took the napkin from his lap scrawled:

For Sale: baby shoes, never worn

Then he collected his money. It’s impressive, really. But I prefer the one with five.

Then there’s Marcus Meibomius. He was a Hebrew scholar in the seventeenth century. At the height of his career he boasted that his efforts had uncovered the true science of Hebrew meter, all the secrets and wonders to unlocking the Psalms. Meibomius promised to release his secret as soon as 60,000 subscribers promised him five pounds of sterling a piece for a copy of his work. 

Thus, he carried his secret to the grave.

Five pounds of sterling, it might as well be thirty silver coins.

I may not understand words- really, who can? But I can see them everywhere, floating above my life as lights on a hill. And their beauty lifts me like skiers onto the lift. From up here I hear the cry of a father, begging to be carried up the hill, towards the floating globes. And I hear a mother, weeping at the bottom, hands clenched around a clean pair of child’s shoes. And the lights. What a terrible, beautiful thing they are, bearing us up in the darkness.

It’s like a dream, this life is. Like distant memories of cold and darkness and aching knees, stupid bets, heaving sobs-Dear God, those shoes- and lights pulling, pulling us upward, forward, onward.

And I want to speak of something wonderful. Can I try? It’s a poem and a novel; Hemingway- the buffoon- drew me into his game. He challenged me to gamble around the dinner table of my heart, to wage against the dark voices of apathy and indifference.

For I can tell you of a hill, a boy, tired eyes, a warm car, dark void and lights. I can tell you of beauty that was not sold, of words that became flesh, and light that dwelt among us. It lifts us and carries us-sometimes without us even knowing- out of the depths of despair, ignorance, and indifference. I can tell you of it all. With just five words. They’re not mine, mind you. But they’re good.

Here, give me your napkin.